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Trojan horse securing the stables in Hungary

Budapest: The Hungarian government led by strongman Viktor Orban was forced to calibrate its decision to let a Chinese university open a campus in Budapest. The Shanghai-based Fudan University, which was consistently among the top 100 universities in the world, was to open its first campus in Europe by 2024. This would have been another example of growing Chinese influence in Hungary as it comes on the back of Budapest-Belgrade railway line marking the entrance to the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in an EU and NATO state. Read also – EURO 2020 Group F | Hungary vs Portugal, France vs Germany: Match preview, prediction, team and streaming details

Unpublished document shows that an agreement of 1.8 billion. $ Was signed in February, giving Fudan University 64 acres to build its campus in Budapest. Originally, the land package was to be used for a cheap dormitory for Hungarian students who could not afford the high rents while studying in Budapest. About 20% of campus spending would come from the state budget, and the remaining $ 1.5 billion would come through loans from China, which impose a huge burden on taxpayers. The amount is greater than what Hungary spends annually on the entire education system and is considered a security risk as well as a debt trap. The university charter explicitly mentions the promotion and dissemination of the Chinese Communist Party’s thought process. When these details became public, it caused widespread anger and led to significant protest from civil society in the city. Read also – G7 summit 2021: Leaders promise to deliver vaccines, climate; Encourage China to Abuse Right | 10 points

Orban’s party Fidesz has consolidated its grip on power since 2010 and won successive landslide elections in 2014 and 2018. Orban has shown increasing authoritarian tendencies, which have led to civil liberties being affected and the opposition largely marginalized. With elections in 2022, the controversy quickly turned into a rallying point for opposition parties to corner the strong man. Also read – 12 dead, over 100 injured in massive gas explosion in China; Rescue Ops along the way

Orban has disagreed with the EU on a number of issues, particularly in its pursuit of its “Eastern Opening” policy. Under this policy, Hungary has increased its trade and diplomatic ties with Russia, China, Turkey – states that do not share a great equation with the EU. Relations with China are a particular friction point, where apart from taking out a $ 2 billion loan to expand BRI, Hungary has Huawei’s largest supply center outside China and has continued to approve a Chinese vaccine for COVID-19, the only EU country to that does it.

Budapest’s civil society has come out in thousands to protest the movement. The official narrative of a world-class institution that improves the academic standards of the country does not cut ice with them. When operational, Fudan University is expected to provide 6,000 places for Hungarian and international students

In the last few years, there has been a massive migration of Hungarian students and researchers with reference to lack of academic freedom, which has given rise to belief that the majority of the seats will be taken by international students, mostly Chinese. Opposition politicians such as Liberal Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony are concerned that the project could provide a platform for espionage with reference to China’s track record. He feels it is yet another attempt by Orban to expand its control over educational institutions. Three years ago, Orban introduced an amendment to a law on higher education, which virtually shut down billionaire George Soros, who supported the University of Central Europe – a leading university in Hungary.

The Fudan campus in Hungary would be the first campus for a Chinese university in the EU. Given Fudan’s stature in academia, a larger metropolis like London or Paris would have been more appropriate. But critics believe that Hungary, where the Orbans have control over the media, provides a politically secure environment, and Fudan does not risk political unrest or control as it would undergo in a Western European country.

The protest against Fudan University is one of the rare cases that has united the opposition against Orban. Five major opposition parties have come together and are projecting Karacsony as the face of the opposition in next year’s election. For his part, Karacsony has gone out to demonstrate his liberal credentials and frameworks where it would harm China the most. He has announced the renaming of streets near the planned campus after the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and another will be called “Uyghur Martyrs’ Road”. Other streets will be named after Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters and a Catholic bishop imprisoned in China.

China has understandably come to the defense of the project and condemned the opposition to the university, which it describes as a people to people who contact. But the public sentiment towards the announced project has rattled the government, and it climbed down from its position. The Prime Minister’s Office has said that the people of Budapest would be able to decide on the future of the university in a referendum scheduled for 2023, thus preventing it from becoming a major election issue in a tight race in 2022.

Orban has been called by his critics “Trojan horse” within the EU and NATO, and this seems to be the case with securing the stable when the horses are bolted. He has a fight on hand as the opposition alliance from six parties has a narrow lead over Fidesz in the polls.

(Note: Zeyaur Rahman has a master’s degree from JNU. Worldview is his weekly column on socio-political affairs. He also curates underal historical content in his blogs. He can be reached on Twitter: @rahman_zeyaur)

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